Jay Middleton was happy to be cleared to play basketball this season after the pain he endured as a sophomore.
The Whale Branch Early College High School junior transferred before the school year from Wade Hampton, where he underwent surgery during his sophomore year to correct an irregular heartbeat that was the result of Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome. The recovery required him to be off his feet for close to three weeks.
He passed his physical at Whale Branch and after the holiday break stepped into his role with the Warriors' boys basketball team -- a 6-foot-7 post player who brought even more depth to a team that could play more than 10.
Senior Jay Abney has played for Whale Branch and coach Linc Lyles since the program's inaugural season, when he was a freshman. He started the Lower State final and state championship games as a junior and is now content to fill a role. It's a commitment he knew he would have to make from the start of the season.
Marlon Williams is a transfer from Beaufort High School who has welcomed his job as forward with a 3-point shooting touch.
As Whale Branch prepares to play host to Timmonsville on Wednesday in the Class 1-A Lower State semifinal, a spectator not well-versed with the Warriors might scramble for a roster when the first group checks in at the scorer's table.
Warriors coaches make no apologies for going deep in their bench. Any discontent among the team is quashed by the fact the Warriors are winning.
And program veterans like Abney preach the virtues of the system to any newcomers.
"You can trust everybody," Abney said. "Everybody knows their role; everybody has their legs. We don't doubt anyone on the team. We know everyone can do something."
The balanced playing time means no statistics leap from the team's MaxPreps website. Justin Rhode leads the team in scoring, with 12.2 per game. Denzel Daniel also averages double digits, at 11.4. And then seven players average at least four points a game.
As a result, no Whale Branch players were selected for the S.C. Basketball Coaches Association all-state teams released this week, despite Whale Branch being ranked No. 1 in Class 1-A throughout the season. The Warriors did not even produce the Player of the Year in their region -- that was Denmark-Olar's Christopher Turner, who was also named the top player in 1-A.
But no matter. The players believe.
"Once you come here, and you're in the system for a while, you know what to expect," said Middleton, who is grooming freshman post player Camrin Miller. "It's kind of like your religion."
Lyles' objective is to maintain high-pressure defense. He has borrowed from UNLV, Dean Smith, Nolan Richardson and most recently, Virginia Commonwealth to help shape his teams.
Playing a number of contributors helps maintain fresh legs and rewards hard work, he says.
"We try to get a rotation for who may be hot that night and not necessarily 'jumpshot' hot, but 'Who is making plays? Who's aggressive? Who's getting a lot of rebounds? Who's setting the most screens?,'" Lyles said. "...We just have more than five guys who deserve to play."
The Warriors would love to get in a running game Wednesday and let their bench try and wear on the Whirlwinds -- Whale Branch has 18 on its roster, and Timmonsville dresses nine players.
But Lyles expects much of the game to be played in the halfcourt. He has seen the Whirlwinds dictate tempo.
Whale Branch added some wrinkles on offense to try to attack the Timmonsville zone defense and are prepared to generate offense out of sets.
"We've just got to move the ball fast and attack the open spaces," Williams said.
SCHSL BOYS BASKETBALL PLAYOFFS
Lower State semifinal
Class 2-A: Calhoun County at Ridgeland-Hardeeville, 7 p.m.
Class 1-A: Whale Branch vs. Timmonsville, at Battery Creek, 7 p.m.